10918586462?profile=RESIZE_710xClothes are the first layer of insulation outside our skin. Clothes can keep us warm in the winter and (perhaps by removing them) cool in the summer. Some can be returned to the earth after their useful life is over to grow more carbon-sucking, oxygen-pumping plants.

ASHRAE, a recognized standard for indoor comfort, has determined that humans can be comfortable inside with thermostats set to 82° F during the hot months and 67° F in the winter. But relative humidity, presence or absence of fans, and the clothing we wear influence our comfort. Fans increase the rate of evaporative cooling, aka sweat. It feels cooler, so you can lower the air conditioning but still feel comfortable.

Staying Cool

Japan has gone all in with its Cool Biz policy that went into effect in 2005. Japan can get very hot and humid in the summer, especially in big cities, due to the heat island effect. The Japanese Environment Ministry mandates that office managers keep their air conditioners above 82° F in the summer months. But it also requires that employees dress in pants or skirts and short-sleeved shirts—no ties or suit jackets. Shirt options include polo and Hawaiian shirts. Good taste is not defined. Japanese and U.S. clothing designers offer synthetic clothing that helps keep you cool. Synthetic fabric is a problem we will discuss later in this article.

Staying Warm

Former President Jimmy Carter recommended lowering the temperature set point and wearing a sweater inside during the cold months. This was during the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970s, and before “Drill Baby Drill” became a meme. Things have not changed much around the politics of energy and thermal comfort. But now we are more efficient in using energy in cars, buildings, travel, and growing food. Technology evolves more quickly than humans do.

Real Simple has some recommendations for sustainable clothing. They recommend using several thinner layers of clothing rather than one thick layer in winter. Thermal long sleeve shirts with a sweater or sweatshirt can help you stay happy at 67° F. For outside, they recommend dressing warmly from top to bottom with knit caps, face masks, scarves, snug shirts on the wrist, mittens, several thin layers, and water-resistant coats and boots.

Synthetic Versus Natural Clothing Fabrics

Synthetic materials are now created with unique features that help us stay cool in the summer and warm during the winter. Clothing made of Gore-Tec is waterproof and provides insulation. Nylon, polyester, and Rayon clothing are moisture-wicking and help you stay cool like a ceiling fan does through evaporative cooling. They are lightweight compared to natural fibers, and thinner. However they are made from a base of fossil fuels, added chemicals, and complicated processing. Natural clothing made from the coats of sheep, cows, and alpaca is less energy-intensive to create and has excellent insulation qualities—wool has kept sheep and alpaca warm for thousands (millions?) of years. Hemp, cotton, and linen are plant-based materials. Some clothing can be composted, and most can be recycled.

Unsustainable Magazine, ironically, ranks clothing materials and their environmental impact from the most sustainable to the least. Sustainable fabrics are made from plants with minimal environmental impact. For example, plants that take less water to grow are easy to cultivate and produce year-round are the most sustainable. The most sustainable clothing materials are amendable to a circular economy—they can be used repeatedly and composted at the end of their useful lives. Hemp and linen are at the top of the Unsustainable Magazine sustainability list, and Polyester is the least sustainable. Like other synthetic fabrics, polyester can be recycled but releases tiny plastic spheres into our oceans, lakes, and streams over time. Cotton can be recycled but takes a lot of water, land, and chemicals to grow for commercial use, so it is considered unsustainable. Clothing made from animals, such as Alpaca Wool, Sheep’s Wool, Goat’s Wool (cashmere), and leather, are sustainable to a more or less degree. It takes minimal energy and water to raise an Alpaca, more for sheep and goats. Leather is the least sustainable because of the water and energy needed to raise the cattle that are the source of leather, and because the chemical treatment in leather can leak into the environment.

Woody Harrelson may be right—hemp clothing is the way to go. And you can make rope and building materials like concrete from the sustainable material to boot.


Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

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